Terrance Higgins

He somehow manages to balance with Ani DiFranco, Don Was, George Porter & Ivan Neville, John Medeski’s Mad Skillet, Tab Benoit—a seemingly endless string of fascinating and utterly unique recordings, tours, and special appearances. What makes him able to handle such a wide range of gigs? The answer lies at least partly in the city of his birth.

It was November 2018, and Terence Higgins was calling Modern Drummer from Macon, Georgia. It was the first night of a three-week run with Ani DiFranco that would take her band to the West Coast, and Higgins had the kind of problems that most of us only dream about. The drummer was trying to balance tours with DiFranco, Don Was, George Porter & Ivan Neville, John Medeski’s Mad Skillet, and Tab Benoit. “Yeah, I’m trying to do at least two right now,” he said, “maybe even four. During the Ani DiFranco tour I have a couple of shows with Don Was, and then I’m slotted in the Take Me to the River Tour with George Porter and Ivan Neville to promote this new film. I’m flying to Texas to meet John Medeski for a tour with a new band he started, and then I join Tab Benoit for his December tour. When they all bookend and line up perfectly, it’s amazing, but when the gigs start to overlap and conflict, then it becomes a nightmare.”

That’s when priorities kick in. “I’m Ani’s drummer, so she takes precedence over all the other gigs,” Higgins later explains. “And Tab Benoit understands that when Ani’s got a tour, I can’t make his gig. So it’s just a matter of lining up the dates on the calendar, trying to prioritize, and saying, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ or ‘No, I have a conflict.’ I manage to make it work like that.”

Higgins was born in New Orleans in 1970 and grew up in the suburb of Old Algiers. His great grandfather introduced him to drums when he was a toddler, and by high school he was chosen to represent the state of Louisiana in the McDonald’s All-American Band.

Afterwards he enrolled in music studies at Southern University. Legendary bassist George Porter Jr. took the up-and-comer under his wing and made sure he was listening to giants of New Orleans drumming like Baby Dodds, Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, Charles “Hungry” Williams, Shannon Powell, James Black, Herlin Riley, Zigaboo Modeliste, Joe Lastie, Idris Muhammad, Ricky Sebastian, Herman Ernest, and Willie Green. Higgins was equally inspired by an amazing group of drumming peers including Adonis Rose, Brian Blade, Gerald French, Donald Edwards, Troy Davis, Stanton Moore, Russell Batiste Jr., Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander, Doug Belote, Alfred Salvant, and Raymond Weber. He also counts Billy Cobham, Phillip “Fish” Fisher, and Matt Abts among his many influences.

Higgins came to national prominence as part of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, appearing on 2002’s Medicated Magic, 2004’s Funeral for a Friend, and 2006’s What’s Going On. Later he played with John Scofield’s Piety Street Band, and in 2011 he toured behind Warren Haynes’ Man in Motion, appearing the following year on double-CD/DVD package Live at the Moody Theater.

With his own band, SwampGrease, Higgins recorded the albums In the Bywater (2004) and Swampgrease II: Rage ‘Til Sunrise (2013), amplifying his talents as songwriter and music producer, and showcasing his ability to make any style of music swing like mad.

For the past seven years Higgins has been playing with Ani DiFranco, appearing on her studio albums Allergic to Water (2014) and Binary (2017) as well as on a number of her live “Bootleg” releases. “I started working with Ani right after I finished up with the Warren Haynes Band,” he recalls. “I had the option of going back with Dirty Dozen Brass Band or just kind of winging it and seeing whatever else was happening. And then Ani called me, so it kind of lined up. I toured with her for about a year, and then she got pregnant and took a year off. Tab Benoit called, so I worked with him for a year, and then Ani came back. I still play with both bands regularly. It works out beautifully sometimes.”

DiFranco, who launched her career in New York City, relocated to New Orleans about ten years ago. “I knew of Ani,” says Higgins, “and I was familiar with her music, but I didn’t know her. I dug her stuff, but it really wasn’t on my radar that I would be playing with her. I think Ivan Neville recommended me for the gig. She was looking for a drummer from New Orleans, you know, so my name came up. Then I played with her, and it was magic.”

Higgins isn’t merely a sideman with DiFranco; his energy and playing has a big impact on her music. “I just draw from the roots of all the music, the source of it,” he says. “Because it’s all got DNA that’s based off of what I’ve grown up in and was taught, being from New Orleans. For me it’s just interpretation and getting on the inside of whatever genre that I’m dealing with. It’s fun doing that. And I love Ani’s stuff, because from a drumming perspective it’s totally different from any other gig that I’ve done. It’s not so much about me, or playing loud, you know. It’s about the spirit and just playing the song, interpreting her music. And she loves it—we connect on so many levels. It’s almost like telepathy going on up there, you know. We communicate really well, without speaking. Then being in tune with bass player Todd Sickafoose, it’s like, Wow, what’s going on? He’s a monster. There’s just a great chemistry that we have with her band.”

Terrance Higgins

As Higgins says, growing up in New Orleans helped prepare him for all the different styles he’s playing now. “Yes, that is my foundation,” he affirms. “But early on in my career I played with singer-songwriter types that weren’t from New Orleans. I was in this band in college, like a progressive rock band. The singer-songwriter really showed me the ropes and just how to listen and play songs. That’s a different aspect, outside of, you know, the basic rootsy New Orleans thing. So I got that foundation of understanding arrangements and how to apply dynamics and timbres to different songs, and I think when I started working with the Warren Haynes Band, right before I played with Ani, all of those sensibilities were brought forth. He noticed the way I play songs and the way I interpret music and arrangements. And it was like second-nature for me because I had all of those things fundamentally.

“When I started playing with Ani,” Higgins continues, “I’d already been exercising all of that information, so it was kind of easy for me to jump into that. But then playing with Dirty Dozen Brass Band for all of those years, they allowed me a certain sense of freedom when I was playing. They didn’t restrict what I was doing to any one thing—as long as it was grooving and fun. So it opened up my world to being free and understanding limitations and boundaries. All of that information just stuck with me, and that’s just how I fit in.

“I work well with a lot of different artists because I’m so open-minded about the music,” Higgins insists. “I don’t really think of it as one thing; I just think of it as a continuation of something else. I find myself in some really peculiar places in terms of gigs, when you think about my career and where I came from. Recently I’ve been doing these tribute shows with Don Was. A couple years ago Warren Haynes recommended me to do the Last Waltz fortieth-anniversary tour with Taj Mahal and Dr. John, and it was amazing. They did a tribute to Little Feat, and then they did a tribute to Bob Marley with Ziggy and Stephen Marley. That turned into a tribute to the Rolling Stones, and now this NBC special that celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s Comeback Special.

“I find myself playing these gigs that culturally wouldn’t be on my radar, but with my musical abilities, I’m able to handle it. It’s pretty amazing, when you think about the drummers that played those gigs—Levon and all those guys. I get to jam off all that energy and inside of their style. As I listen to the music, I’m figuring out that it lends itself to what I do, because they were all checking out New Orleans stuff. So it’s like, I get it.”

In the fall of 2018, Higgins joined the Take Me to the River—New Orleans LIVE! tour in support of the acclaimed Martin Shore–produced music documentary of the same name. On it, the drummer got to play with the Neville Brothers, members of the Meters and Dirty Dozen, and Snoop Dogg. “They got together a bunch of New Orleans musicians, we collaborated on songs in the studio, and they filmed it,” says Higgins. “It’s about the different generations of the music and the musicians. It’s pretty incredible that it all lined up like that and I was able to confirm every tour. It’s a lot of music, and a lot of miles.”

Within days of that tour ending, Higgins joined up with John Medeski’s Mad Skillet, recording an album and doing a month-long tour. “I met John Medeski back when he produced Dirty Dozen’s [1999 album] Buck Jump in New Orleans. We brought him in to recapture the magic that they’d had from the old days. He brought a certain kind of energy, and we really hit it off. Years passed, and John had always wanted to work with me and Kirk Joseph, the tuba player, based on that session. He would come to New Orleans, and we would throw together these latenight shows for Jazz Fest with [guitarist] Will Bernard. John Medeski just kind of kidnapped the band and called it Mad Skillet. It’s an amazing little quartet.”

Higgins says he enjoys using the different chops for different tours. “It’s just different muscle memory,” he explains. “With Ani it’s not so much about big beats and improvisation, you know; it’s also about what I don’t play, and about listening to her. Even though her songs are structured, we don’t necessarily have to play the same exact thing. There’s still room for different inflections in her music. So it’s super interesting every night. Because we don’t anticipate anything, we just let it flow.

“The Medeski thing is way more improvisational in terms of soloing,” Higgins continues. “The song is structured, but we get into these different vibes throughout every song. It’s like we don’t know what’s going to happen either, so it’s kind of cool. It’s two totally different muscles for me, two trains of thought. I love switching gears like that. Switching those gears is good exercise for me to grow and perfect what I do, mentally and physically.

Terrance Higgins

“I’m loving the path that my career has taken me,” Higgins says. “I was with Dirty Dozen for fifteen or sixteen years, and that’s a lot of time. I finally started branching out. All of those musicians that I’ve worked with heard the Dirty Dozen or heard me in some capacity, but once I started working with them it was like, Oh, wow, he’s got way more stuff happening than we might have thought. But the drumming lineage in New Orleans has always been about stepping outside of the city. Smokey Johnson, Earl Palmer, Count M’Butu, Zigaboo—they all got out. They opened the door for this kind of thing. It’s just like falling in line with the lineage.

“George Porter was my first gig, before Dirty Dozen,” Higgins continues, “and for me that was like the Library of Congress in terms of who to check out in New Orleans. Because he actually had me playing with a lot of those older guys, like Snooks Eaglin and Earl King and Johnny Adams. I played with him through that, and then once I got with the Dirty Dozen, that was a different side of the coin. He would do shows with Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, and Alvin Rogers was turning me on to Fats Domino, so it’s like I got the whole scoop of New Orleans, you know, from the streets to the stage.”

Higgins designs his drumkit specifically for each tour. For instance, with Ani DiFranco he’s using a second, deep snare in the usual first floor tom position. “With Ani I’ve actually been using a couple different kits,” he says. “I use a Session Studio Classic set, and I use a wood fiberglass kit because it has that darker, more vintage sound. I recently got the Session Studio Select, and they’re even more vintage and vibey than the kits that I’ve previously used. So now I’m in the process of making the swap and integrating the newer kit into the fold.

“My gear changes constantly,” Terence goes on. “I use a different cymbal setup with Ani because of her style, and the quiet. I need more washy and bright cutting stuff. On other gigs I use more stacks and bigger crashes. And with Ani I barely use drumsticks. I use a lot of different implements, like Blasticks, brushes, and mallets, as opposed to the other gigs, where I’m using 5B sticks and playing really loud.

“I bring out some extra vintage snare drums here and there,” Higgins adds, “but when I’m touring I try to be brand sensitive, because people are always taking pictures and video, and I like to be seen with the gear that I’m endorsing. They do a good job with accommodating my vibe, so I don’t have to go to a different company to get a certain sound. I don’t necessarily have to have a 1950s Leedy snare drum on tour. I can get the sounds that I need. I’ve been with Pearl for nineteen years, and Sabian, of course, master cymbal makers.”

Higgins says he takes steps to keep his chops and his mind fresh while on the road. “I have a practice set that I’m able to tour with, and I’ve always got a pad,” he says. “I’ll bring my computer and my MIDI keyboards, because I like to document musical ideas and try to write songs for projects that I do outside of my touring gigs. So I keep pretty busy when I’m on tour. I’ve always got something to do or study or read, including learning more about New Orleans history. I recently did a history class at the New School about New Orleans drumming, and it was really cool. Sometimes when I’m presenting a class, I’ve got to go back and refresh my own thoughts on that. It’s like, you’re teaching these kids in college, and they already know something about music, so you’ve got to be extra on. There was an educational component to the Take Me to the River tour, and we did different university classes in between the tour dates.”

And those tour dates just keep coming. “You never really unpack,” says Higgins. “I always have a bag packed with some clothes and things like multivitamins. And I’ll take my electronic gear—my iPad, laptop, mini-keyboard, hard drive, a couple of digital cameras…. Plus my gym clothes, because I’m living out of it for the next month. I’ll go home a couple times. But it won’t be for long.”

Terrance Higgins

Higgins’ Ani Difranco Setup

Drums: Pearl Session Studio Select in Nicotine White Marine finish
A. 6.5×14 Sensitone Premium Beaded Brass snare
B. 8×12 tom
C. 8×14 Free Floating Mahogany snare
D. 16×16 floor tom
E. 14×24 bass drum

Cymbals: Sabian
1. 16″ Artisan Elite hi-hats
2. 22″ HH Remastered thin crash
3. 24″ Artisan Elite
4. 18″ AAX Aero crash
5. 20″ Paragon Diamondback Chinese crash

Percussion: LP mounted tambourine, African seed rattles, various shakers, Indian ghungroo bell string

Hardware: Pearl, including Eliminator Redline hi-hat and bass drum pedal, and trap table

Heads: Remo, including Controlled Sound Coated snare batters, Emperor Vintage Coated tom batters and Ambassador resonants, Powerstroke P3 Coated bass drum batters

Sticks: Vic Firth 5A and 85A sticks, mallets, beaters, and brushes

With John Medeski’s Mad Skillet

Drums: Pearl Vision VBL Bop Kit
-6.5×14 Sensitone snare
-8×12 tom
-14×14 floor tom
-16×18 bass drum

Electronics: Audix D series mics, Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors with Shure 600 MHz belt pack

Cymbals: Sabian
-13″ HHX Manhattan Jazz hi-hats
-22″ HH Remastered thin crash
-22″ Vault ride
-Stack: 17″ HHX X-Treme crash/12″ AAX Aero splash/10″ AA Mini Holy China
-18″AAX Aero crash

Percussion: LP salsa cowbell, Peter Engelhart Snail With John Medeski’s Mad Skillet